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The first contested election for chief executive took place in March 2007, as Hong Kong prepared to mark the 10th anniversary of reversion to China in July. However, the Beijing leadership’s forceful reminder of the limits to Hong Kong’s autonomy in June raised concerns about the progress of political reform in the territory. In December, direct election by universal suffrage for the Hong Kong elections scheduled for 2012 was ruled out.
Hong Kong Island was ceded in perpetuity to Britain in 1842; adjacent territories were subsequently added, and the last section was leased to Britain in 1898 for a period of 99 years. Hong Kong’s transition to Chinese rule began in 1984 with the Sino-British Joint Declaration, in which London agreed to restore the entire colony to China in 1997. In return, Beijing—under Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s “one country, two systems” formula—pledged to maintain the capitalist enclave’s legal, political, and economic autonomy for 50 years.
Under the 1984 agreement, a constitution for the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR), known as the Basic Law, took effect in 1997. The Basic Law, which stated that universal suffrage was the “ultimate aim” for Hong Kong, allowed direct elections for 18 seats in the territory’s 60-member legislature, known as the Legislative Council (Legco), with the gradual expansion of elected seats to 30 by 2003. “Functional constituencies”—business and social interest groups, many with close ties to Beijing—were to choose the remaining 30 seats. Hong Kong’s last British colonial governor, Christopher Patten, infuriated Beijing with his attempts to deepen democracy. After China took control in 1997, Beijing disbanded the partially elected Legco and installed a provisional legislature that repealed or tightened several civil liberties laws during its 10-month tenure.
Tung Chee-hwa was chosen by a Beijing-organized election committee to lead Hong Kong. He saw his popularity wane as Beijing became increasingly involved in Hong Kong’s affairs. The government’s independence was questioned further in 2002, when officials introduced Basic Law Article 23, a draft antisubversion bill. The considerable powers the bill gave to the government led to fears that civic freedoms would be compromised, sparking massive demonstrations in July 2003; the bill was subsequently withdrawn. Following reelection in 2002, Tung promised to consult with the public on changes to the electoral system. However, in April 2004, China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) cut the debate short, unilaterally interpreting the Basic Law and issuing a ruling that rejected universal suffrage for either the 2007 chief executive or 2008 Legco elections. The NPC also maintained that political reform in Hong Kong could not occur without its prior approval.
In the September 2004 Legco elections, pro-Beijing parties retained control of the legislature. The elections were marred by incidents of intimidation and threats; much of this activity was thought to have been organized by Beijing. In a report issued in September 2004, Human Rights Watch called instances of election manipulation “some of the most worrying violations of human rights since the 1997 handover.”
In March 2005, with two years left to serve, the deeply unpopular Tung resigned, and he was replaced by career civil servant Donald Tsang. In another controversial interpretation of the Basic Law, largely reflecting Beijing’s concerns about Tsang’s political reliability, the NPC ruled that he would serve out the remainder of Tung’s term rather than a full five-year term as chief executive.
Tsang has been successful in representing the often-competing interests of the Hong Kong people and the Chinese leadership. His political reform package was defeated in December 2005, after prodemocracy Legco members refused to support any plan that did not include a timetable for universal suffrage. However, Tsang rebounded in 2006, buoyed by the economic recovery and Beijing’s restrained reaction to subsequent prodemocracy rallies. Although concerns were raised by passage of a controversial surveillance law in September 2006, there was no repeat of the widespread demonstrations that greeted the antisubversion bill.
In March 2007, Hong Kong held its first contested election for chief executive, after the pan-democrats on the election committee voted as a block to nominate a second candidate, Alan Leong. Although Tsang was reelected by a wide margin, garnering 82 percent of the votes, the competition forced the candidates to appeal for public support in two landmark televised debates.
China’s reaction to the election dashed hopes that President Hu Jintao would mark his first visit to Hong Kong by unveiling a roadmap for political reform, including a timetable for universal suffrage. On the contrary, NPC Chairman Wu Bangguo bluntly reminded the SAR of the limits on its autonomy in June, saying that it had only as much power as authorized by the Chinese government. Hu echoed these sentiments during his July visit, calling only for “gradual” democratic development. Faced with this reality, there was limited public comment on the government’s “Green Paper” on constitutional reform.
Although the Basic Law calls for the eventual direct election of Hong Kong’s chief executive and the Legco, China’s NPC in April 2004 ruled out universal suffrage for the 2007 and 2008 elections, invoking the Basic Law’s caveat that the transition should be “gradual” and concluding that Hong Kong was “not yet ready” for full democratic government. In December 2007, China again disappointed democrats by ruling out direct election by universal suffrage for the Hong Kong elections scheduled for 2012. While the NPC decision stated that the chief executive may be directly elected by universal suffrage in 2017, and indicated Legco could be by 2020, conditions will apply and much remains open to interpretation.
Hong Kong’s Basic Law calls for the election of a chief executive and a unicameral Legislative Council (Legco). The chief executive is elected by an 800-member committee: some 200,000 “functional constituency” voters elect 600 members, and the remaining 200 consist of Legco members, Hong Kong delegates to the NPC, religious representatives, and 41 members of the mainland’s Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. The Legco currently consists of 30 directly elected members and 30 members chosen by the functional constituency voters. The chief executive serves a five-year term, and Legco members serve four-year terms.
The territory’s Basic Law restricts the Legco’s lawmaking powers, prohibiting legislators from introducing bills that would affect Hong Kong’s public spending, governmental operations, or political structure. Although there are fair electoral laws, the 2004 Legco elections were marred by intimidation and threats, largely at the hands of Chinese government supporters. The first contested election for chief executive was held in March 2007, after pan-democrats on the election committee nominated a challenger to Donald Tsang, the incumbent. Tsang nevertheless won reelection with 82 percent of the vote.
Hong Kong enjoys a multi-party system, and local and Legco elections are fiercely contested. The four main parties are the Civic Party, the pro-China Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, the Democratic Party, and the Liberal Party.
Hong Kong is generally regarded as having low rates of corruption, although it is apparent that business interests have considerable influence on the Legco. The right to access government information is protected by law and observed in practice. Hong Kong was ranked 14 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Under Article 27 of the Basic Law, Hong Kong residents enjoy freedoms of speech, press, and publication. Hong Kong’s media are widely regarded as among the freest in East Asia. International media organizations operate freely, and foreign reporters do not need government-issued identification to operate. Hong Kong has 16 privately owned newspapers, although four of them are funded by pro-Beijing interests and follow the capital’s lead on political issues. Falun Gong has encountered difficulty in trying to publish its newspaper, and observers remain concerned about self-censorship. A Hong Kong Journalist Association survey found that 58.4 percent of journalists polled believed that press freedom had deteriorated since reversion, mainly due to self-censorship. There are also concerns about the future of government-owned Radio Television Hong Kong after a committee recommended not allowing it to transform into an independent public broadcaster. There are no restrictions on internet access.
The Basic Law provides for freedom of religion, which is generally respected in practice. Religious groups are excluded from the Societies Ordinance, which requires nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to register with the government. Falun Gong followers remain free to practice in the territory. However, over 140 adherents, most from Taiwan and with valid visas, were reportedly denied entry or forcibly deported in June 2007 as they sought to join prodemocracy demonstrations marking the tenth anniversary since the handover. University professors can write and lecture freely, and political debate on campuses is lively.
Passage of the controversial Interception of Communications and Surveillance Ordinance in September 2006, necessitated by a court decision finding that the existing grounds for police surveillance contravened the Basic Law, led to concerns that the measure gave the authorities too much power. Under the new law, the chief executive has the authority to appoint a panel of judges to approve surveillance activities, including telephone wiretaps and monitoring of email correspondence.
The Basic Law guarantees freedom of assembly and association. Police permits for demonstrations are necessary though rarely denied. Protests on “politically sensitive” issues are held regularly, including Falun Gong demonstrations against harsh treatment of their group in China.
Even the government’s staunchest critics acknowledge that Hong Kong residents enjoy the same basic rights as before the 1997 handover, but many of these rights are now on a weaker legal footing. While the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights continues to be formally incorporated into Hong Kong’s 1991 bill of rights, the provisional legislature that served for 10 months after the handover watered down certain provisions. It also amended laws to give officials the power to cite national security concerns in denying registration to NGOs, deregistering existing groups, and barring public protests, although these powers have not been exercised.
Hong Kong’s trade unions are independent, and membership is not restricted to a single trade, industry, or occupation. However, the laws restrict some basic labor rights and do not protect others. The provisional legislature in 1997 removed both the legal basis for collective bargaining and legal protections against summary dismissal for union activity. The Employment Ordinance provides punishments for antiunion discrimination. Though strikes are legal in the territory, many workers sign contracts stating that job walkouts could be grounds for summary dismissal. Metal workers launched a series of strike protests in August 2007.
The common-law judiciary is independent, and the judicial process is fair. Trials are public and held before a jury. However, the NPC reserves the right to make a final interpretation of the Basic Law, effectively limiting the power of Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeals.
Hong Kong’s police force, which remains firmly under the control of civilian authorities, is well supervised and not known to be corrupt. The police are forbidden by law to employ torture and other forms of abuse. Arbitrary arrest and detention are also illegal; suspects must be charged within 48 hours of their arrest. Prison conditions generally meet international standards.
Citizens are treated equally under the law, though Hong Kong’s large population of foreign domestic workers remains vulnerable to discrimination. Since foreign workers face deportation if dismissed, they remain fearful of bringing complaints against employers.
The government does not control travel, choice of residence, or choice of employment in Hong Kong, although documents are required to travel to the Chinese mainland. The Hong Kong SAR maintains its own immigration system. In 2004, mainland China relaxed travel restrictions to allow Chinese to visit Hong Kong as individuals, no longer requiring them to join tour groups. However, all Chinese visitors must obtain exit-entry permits from their local public security bureaus before traveling. Employers have to apply to bring workers from China into Hong Kong; direct applications from workers are not accepted.
Though women enjoy equal access to schooling and are protected under the Basic Law, there is discrimination in employment and inheritance. Despite robust efforts by the government, Hong Kong remains a point of transit and destination for persons trafficked for sexual exploitation or forced labor.